Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Wordcraft -- The somewhat true story behind ‘True Grit’

Does indefatigable Dallas actress turned book reviewer RoseMary Rumbley know her books? That’s like asking if teen heroine Mattie Ross of this year’s Big D Reads book, True Grit, has a slight disagreement with a pit full of rattlesnakes. The answers in both cases are, you bet your boots they do. And Rumbley was in full swing during her recent presentation at the Lakewood branch of the Dallas Public Library in support of the Big D Reads selection.

Big D Reads is plugging the 1968 Western novel turned movie as a young people’s read (courtesy of its 14-year-old narrator, Mattie), but movie watchers may remember it better for the character of Mattie’s sidekick, Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn. The role of over the hill, one-eyed U.S. marshal Cogburn was made for scenery chewing. Aging tough guy actor John Wayne played Cogburn in the original 1969 movie, winning the only Oscar of his career. Jeff Bridges reprised Rooster in the 2010 remake.

The novel’s author, Arkansas writer Charles Portis, deftly wove his state’s history into the story of a teen’s search for her father’s killer. There really were outlaws like the murderous Tom Chaney, who fled into the borderlands of the Oklahoma Indian Territory, beyond the jurisdiction of state sheriffs. (Only federal law enforcement agents like Cogburn’s marshal character had the authority to arrest felons within Indian Territory.) And there really was a “hanging judge” Isaac Parker of Fort Smith, Arkansas, thirsting for outlaw blood.

But, Rumbley asked, “where did he get Rooster Cogburn?” Surely Portis must have conjured such an over the top character from whole cloth. Not so, says the man who claims to be the great-grandson of the real Rooster, Brett Cogburn.

The true life Rooster Cogburn, Rumbley told us, was actually named John Franklin Cogburn, earning the nickname “Rooster” for his combativeness at an early age. But the real Rooster Cogburn didn’t do any of the feats of his fictional namesake. Far from being an officer of the law, he was a bootlegger and outlaw who ended his lawless career by shooting a sheriff.

But when the real Rooster finally appeared before Judge Parker, “Isaac Parker had had a liking for the moonshine too,” Rumbley said archly, letting Rooster off with only two years’ imprisonment, giving him time to marry and have children, and grandchildren, and great-grandson Brett.

Brett Cogburn has told his great-grandfather’s story in Rooster: The Life and Times of the Real Rooster Cogburn, and in “The Real Rooster Cogburn,” available online at True West magazine (www.truewestmagazine.com/).


Rumbley’s appearance was sponsored by the Friends of Lakewood Public Library. More Big D Reads events are scheduled daily through April, including tonight’s free screening of True Grit at 8 p.m. at Main Street Garden, 1902 Main Street, Dallas. Get in the mood early by celebrating “National Grits Day” with free grits and toppings from noon to 2 p.m. at Thanks-Giving Square, 1627 Pacific Avenue. 

Saturday, April 18, Dallas Heritage Village, 1515 S. Harwood, will bring the Wild West of True Grit to life with shootouts (with blanks!) at noon and 1 p.m. Entry to the village and its collection of vintage buildings is free Saturday to anyone who brings a copy of the book, available not so coincidentally at the movie screening and other sites. For more information and Big D Reads events, see http://bigreaddallas.org/

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